The Santa Monica City Council. (Photo courtesy

CITY HALL – On Tuesday, when City Council reversed its decision to approve the Hines development agreement, several members expressed their frustration over the vitriol surrounding the debate.

Some of those opposed to the agreement deny that the debate has been marred by a lack of civility. Others say it’s justified.

Councilmember Bob Holbrook said he’s been called a thief, a crook, and a sonuvabitch.

“It’s really a disgusting climate to serve in as a City Council member who is virtually a volunteer. It has become that mean, and that contentious,” he said as some in the audience laughed. “You can laugh about that and if your friends are laughing beside you, you better rethink who your friends are.”

Holbrook said that the rhetoric has become hurtful from people who are his friends. Mayor Pam O’Connor said little before abstaining from the vote, but did echo Holbrook’s sentiments.

Councilmember Gleam Davis ended the agreement with her decisive changed vote. If council hadn’t repealed the agreement, it would have gone to a public vote later this year. One of the many reasons Davis gave for flipping her vote was that, she said, a nasty election could further a rift in the community that could take “a very long time to heal.”

Armen Melkonians, who led the referendum effort through his community group Residocracy, said he was disappointed that it was made out to sound like a nasty campaign.

“We just got the information out,” he said. We presented facts and residents were anxious to sign.”

They presented a different political view, he said, which is not the same as being rude. As for the loud reactions in the Council Chambers, Melkonians said those are raw emotions.

“I don’t think it’s impolite,” he said. “I think it’s impolite for a representative to misstate the facts. I don’t think the reaction from the community, when they hear a misstatement of facts, as a laugh or a boo, I don’t think that could be considered impolite.”

Bob Seldon, another resident, said that he thinks residents’ reactions are justified.

“It’s easy to be friendly and soft spoken when you can simply raise your hand and vote someone out of their home,” he said. “I think laughter is a First Amendment issue. I think clapping is a First Amendment right. If money is speech then I think applause should be.”

Seldon noted that he likes Holbrook but that they just happen to disagree on some issues.

John Petz, a longtime activist in the community, said the same thing.

Petz feels that the shouts from the audience, while not appropriate, were understandable.

“High spirited debate is a part of the great American tradition,” he said.

The call for civility, he said, is an attempt to tamp down the voice of dissidents.

Residocracy Advisory Boardmember Tricia Crane said that the referendum drive was not nastiness, but democracy at work.

“If that is considered rudeness, then our democracy is broken,” she said.

Holbrook said he’s gotten some nasty e-mail that he forwarded to a community group. After that much of it toned down, he said.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who vehemently opposed the Hines agreement, said his job is to listen to the people, even the ones who are not being respectful.

“Anyone of us who runs for public office has willingly become a target for public opinion,” he said in an e-mail. “As much as we hope to bask in praise for things we do right, we have to expect that not everyone will agree with our decisions, and will tell us so, not always politely.”

People sometimes forget that the seven council members are human, McKeown said.

“As much as we discourage vitriol, and I hope it is evident to all concerned that factual arguments are more effective than personal attacks, representative democracy can get blunt when people are disappointed in their representation,” he said.

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